A Collective Vision:
30 Years of Artemisia
Tired of being pushed out of exhibition spaces, a group of female art students formed their own collective in 1973. The group existed for three decades, launching careers and occasionally attracting controversy.
Note: This article discusses sexual violence.
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With Hubbard Street's alternative gallery scene on the rise, the Museum of Contemporary Art newly opened, and national attention lavished on Chicago art, the early 1970s was a great time to be an artist in Chicago.
Unless you were a woman, that is. In 1971, female artists in the U.S. made up three-fourths of art school enrollment but went on to earn only 36 percent of their male peers’ yearly earnings and 17 percent of NEA grants. Chicago’s gender parity was better than most cities, but still skewed: according to the book Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970-85, in 1973 – the same year as Roe v. Wade – fewer than three in every ten solo exhibitions in Chicago featured female artists.
1973 was also the year Joy Poe, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), discovered AIR, an all-female artists’ collective in New York City. She was inspired to start a similar venture in Chicago. Along with fellow SAIC graduates Barbara Grad, Phyllis MacDonald, Emily Pinkowski, and Margaret Wharton, Poe scoured more than 150 studios for talented female artists, eventually inviting fifteen to join them as members of the new collective.
They named it Artemisia, after the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. A prodigy, Gentileschi painted female figures from history, myth, and scripture in empowering scenarios. Her artistic legacy is often overshadowed by her sexual assault at the hands of her tutor and the resulting trial against him, in which Gentileschi was subjected to long, humiliating interrogations by authorities who refused to believe her testimony. Though Gentileschi is now considered one of the great painters of her generation, many contemporaries credited her paintings to her father when she was alive.
Likewise, many of Artemisia’s founding members were used to having their talent doubted. For some of the twenty women, Artemisia was the first and only professional outlet for their work. As early member Claire Prussian recalled, “I had been working for years in my basement and when I joined Artemisia it was a door opened.”
Artemisia’s doors opened for the first time on September 21, 1973, at 226 East Ontario Street, across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art and next door to ARC Gallery, another women’s art collective founded the same year. In 1976, Artemisia moved into a warehouse loft space on Hubbard Street, then the nucleus for the city’s avant-garde art scene. Utilizing these spaces for more than just exhibitions, Artemisia hosted public workshops, panels, and lectures. DePaul art and architecture associate professor Joanna Gardner-Huggett has asserted that Artemisia’s lecture series might have helped formalize feminist art criticism and history as academic disciplines.
As was typical of feminist organizations of the early 1970s, Artemisia was a collective in the purest sense, considering any form of hierarchical governance fundamentally patriarchal. The lack of a presiding officer opened up possibilities for exhibition: Artemisia had no dominating aesthetic or philosophy, besides a broadly feminist one. Though sprung from the milieu of second-wave feminism, not all members explicitly aligned themselves with the movement. Some artists took a more radical tack with their works while others were traditionalist or apolitical.
The group’s first major controversy split these ideological divides wide open. On May 4, 1979, Artemisia founder Joy Poe opened her exhibition Ring True Taboo, sharing the billing with another member of the collective. Without telling the opening night crowd nor other Artemisians, Poe staged a fictional rape in the middle of the exhibition, casting herself as the victim and an actor as her assailant. Poe had intended to make a provocative statement about complicity in misogynistic violence; instead, as with Gentileschi, the incident cast a long shadow. The crowd was shaken, disturbed members quit in protest, and Artemisia suffered a rash of bad press. Though Artemisia leadership elected not to suspend Poe, she voluntarily resigned from the collective shortly thereafter.
The Poe controversy was a jarring reminder that Artemisia was no Eden. Members took the group’s diversity in age, class, sexuality, and education as proof that their collective administration style all but eradicated other forms of oppression. Even so, Artemisia remained overwhelmingly white for years. It was not until the late ’80s that the group began to actively recruit artists of color. Artemisia began to collaborate with Sapphire and Crystals, a black women’s art collective founded in Bronzeville, and in 1996, Linda Kramer, a former member, endowed a fund that would underwrite an exhibition by one underrepresented artist each year.
By that point, however, Artemisia was in dire financial straits. As Hubbard Street and the surrounding area became gentrified, skyrocketing rents pushed the collective from space to space. Moreover, Artemisia's female-only membership policy was beginning to hurt its financials. The policy had long made Artemisia the subject of suspicion in artistic circles, the press, and even the government. It routinely received less governmental funding than its co-ed peers, and under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, federal grant money dried up almost completely.
Artemisia’s membership had been steadily dropping for years, with some believing there was enough opportunity for female artists to render Artemisia obsolete. An ARTnews issue from October 1980 on “Women’s Liberation, Women Artists and Art History” even went so far as to ask in an eye-catching headline, “Where are all the men artists?”
In June 2003, Artemisia dissolved, concluding three decades of art and activism. Judith Brotman, Artemisia’s last president, lamented the loss, saying there would always be a need for female-exclusive spaces such as Artemisia. “It's not the same as it was in 1973, but it's still not equal opportunity," she told the Tribune that year.
Though Artemisia is no more, ARC Gallery – Artemisia’s onetime neighbor and still woman artist–run – lives on in Bucktown.
– Hannah Edgar